Maple Leafs Rumors: Choosing Morgan Rielly or Alex Pietrangelo?

First, I’ve heard some wacky thoughts about how the Toronto Maple Leafs might find salary-cap space so the team can cash in on the Alex Pietrangelo sweepstakes. However, Kevin McGran’s article in The Star earlier this week where he explores a rumor that the Maple Leafs dumping Morgan Rielly as a way to gain money to sign the St. Louis Blues right-shot defenseman is the wackiest I’ve heard of the bunch. (from “Could the Maple Leafs land Alex Pietrangelo? Should they?”, The Star, 21/09/20)

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McGran wisely pooh-poohs the idea, thankfully. However, I can’t believe the craziness has gotten to this point.

There Has to Be a Limit on What the Maple Leafs Will Do

Granted, Pietrangelo is a great defenseman — having him on the Maple Leafs’ roster would be special. However, because he’s a free agent and because there’s mutual interest doesn’t mean the team should trade its young defenseman and a team leader for the sake of yet another very expensive player.

Alex Pietrangelo St. Louis Blues
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There has to be a limit about what the team is willing to do; honestly, I can’t even imagine general manager Kyle Dubas would consider moving Rielly to replace him with Pietrangelo.

The Elephant in the Room Could Get Bigger

What’s most interesting about all this talk about moving “pieces” to fit in Pietrangelo’s likely $9 million (or so) salary is that few people are revealing the elephant in the room. If Pietrangelo actually signed, the Maple Leafs would now have five players who are taking up a huge part of the salary-cap structure of the team. In fact, that would move from four players at $40 million to five players at $50 million (give or take). That would mean 18 more players would have to split about $31 million. That’s crazy.

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McGran agrees that, should the Maple Leafs be able to sign Pietrangelo, he would be added to the quartet of highest-paid players, including Auston Matthews (at $11.634 million), John Tavares (at $11 million), Mitch Marner (at $10.893) and William Nylander (at $6.9 million). McGran questions that recipe because the Maple Leafs have tried it for the past few seasons and so far it hasn’t worked.

Losing Rielly Is Worse than Finding Pietrangelo

However, as McGran noted, the recent suggestion that the team might move Rielly to make room for Pietrangelo is ludicrous. Rielly is a top defender in everyone’s books. If he were on the open market, teams would be lining up for him without social distancing. It is simply illogical to believe the Maple Leafs would move him for Pietrangelo.

Rielly has a $5 million cap hit. However, even if he were moved, that salary would pay barely half of Pietrangelo’s desired salary. The team would then have a more expensive version of a player who provided almost the same skill set, albeit from the other side of the blue line, but who was also four years older.

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammate William Nylander. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

McGran wisely wrote in his article that if Rielly were traded, the return “would be enormous, a stabilizing, puck-moving, all-around defenceman with a team-friendly contract for two more seasons. He’s just outside the Venn diagram of Norris candidates, but was trending that direction before an injury riddled 2019-20 season. Personally, I thought he had a terrific playoff — he was healthy.”

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Even if Pietrangelo were the superior defenseman, as McGran points out, he’s only a bit better. McGran said, “The defence would only be marginally better, the salary cap situation much worse.”

McGran believes it would make more sense for the team to trade Mitch Marner or William Nylander as a way to ensure the salary structure wasn’t allotted so heavily into only the forward position.

There Are Other Options

Personally, as wonderful a player as Pietrangelo likely is, as I’ve been watching the Stanley Cup Final, players like Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian keep popping up. These defensemen, who were not long ago picked off the scrap heap, are playing strong minutes for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kevin Shattenkirk Tampa Bay Lightning
Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Also personally, as I’ve watched the emergence of Ethan Bear with the Edmonton Oilers, I can’t help but think of a couple of the young defensemen in the Maple Leafs organization – Rasmus Sandin comes to mind most quickly. I’m anxious to see what these youngsters could become with a full season under their belts.

There must be options that come without the high sticker price Pietrangelo would likely command. There’s certainly no need to trade Rielly to make it happen.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

An interesting point that McGran made in his article in The Star was that, in his view of the Twitter world, he believes Marner has overtaken Nylander as the player Maple Leafs fans most want to see traded.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Although I don’t follow the Twitter-sphere that much, I have no reason to dispute McGran’s insights. That struck me as an interesting comment, and I wondered — if it’s accurate — what Marner might have done to warrant such a fate.

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I also wonder whether that same feeling might transfer to those in charge of the organization — general manager Dubas and team president Brendan Shanahan. If it does, would the organization consider moving Marner and keep Nylander? Having Marner’s salary-cap hit off the financial books would be good for the team’s financial health and its ability to make changes on the defensive end of the ice.

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